Cuttin-Edge, On-the-Spot Reporting

What Amazon Music HD Means for Audiophiles

On September 17, the audio world sucked in its collective breath after Amazon announced a new streaming service offering lossless CD-resolution and high-resolution music. Amazon Music HD has over 50 million CD-resolution tracks, plus “millions” of “Ultra HD” tracks with higher-than-CD resolution, up to 24-bit/192kHz.

The service is already available in the US, UK, Germany, and Japan. Amazon plans to roll out the service to other countries, but it’s initially focusing on the largest markets for music. In the US, a subscription costs $14.99 (all figures USD) per month, and there’s a 90-day free trial for new subscribers. Amazon Prime members can get the service for $7.99/month for the first six months, after which the price goes up to $12.99.

Amazon

Following the announcement, several SoundStagers, including Doug Schneider, Diego Estan, Howard Kneller, Hans Wetzel, and yours truly, conducted a lively e-mail exchange, speculating how Amazon’s entry into high-rez streaming would play out. Here are some of our thoughts on the subject.

Mainstreaming

Doug Schneider said Amazon’s move will force the other major streaming services -- especially Spotify -- to follow suit. “Amazon just differentiated themselves with a higher-resolution service than Spotify,” Doug observed. “Spotify has to follow suit -- they’re seen as the leader. Apple probably will too, even though they’ve long abandoned music quality, just to be there.”

Amazon Music Unlimited, which uses MP3 compression, costs $9.99 a month ($7.99 for Prime members) -- the same as Spotify (which uses Ogg Vorbis compression) and Apple Music (which uses AAC). “As long as these providers have lower-priced lossy tiers, how many consumers will pay a premium for lossless and high-rez?” I wondered. Hans Wetzel and Diego Estan were on the same page. “I have to imagine high-rez streaming is super niche,” Hans opined, “like not even on the radar of 98% of consumers.”

Diego added, “The technology will drag the consumer along only if there’s no choice, or if the new technology is the same price as the old. Almost no one will pay extra for CD-quality or above-CD-quality streaming. I can only see this happening when Spotify, Apple, and YouTube replace their streaming with CD or HR quality for the same price. But would they?”

Doug predicted that lossless and high-rez will become something that people just expect. “Many people will opt for the cheaper service,” he explained. “But the drag-along that Amazon is providing will make sure the better-quality product that we buy will be there. What’s going to happen is that it will simply ‘become’ the standard. The technology will drag consumers along.”

Amazon Garth Brooks

Hans expressed doubts. “Services like Apple Music cater to the consumer, the 99%, not eccentric types like us. Unless they’re losing meaningful marketshare by not offering high-rez, I think they’ll stick with their current model.”

I think Spotify and Apple will move into high-rez sooner rather than later. Amazon has just clicked a checkbox that’s still blank for the two major services, and I think they’ll respond in kind. I’d be surprised if Spotify doesn’t launch a high-rez tier within the next six months, and I doubt Apple will be far behind.

What about services that already offer high-rez streaming? Amazon’s subscription fees for high-rez streaming are significantly lower than Tidal’s HiFi/Masters tier, which costs $19.99 monthly, and Qobuz’s Studio tier, which costs $24.99. “The bottom line is this is great for the consumer,” Howard Kneller observed. “It puts pressure on Tidal to up its SQ game and also puts pricing pressure on Qobuz.”

Whither Qobuz?

The day of the announcement, Qobuz sent out a press release stating that it “welcomes Amazon Music HD to the hi-fi family.” The release included a prepared quote from Dan Mackta, director of marketing for Qobuz USA, stating, “Qobuz is excited that a company with the scale and influence of Amazon joins us in celebrating the value of audio quality. We’ve been saying all along that music aficionados want lossless and high-rez streaming and are willing to pay a premium for the improved experience. The entrance of Amazon into this field validates our business and underscores the growth in demand for higher-quality streaming.”

My first thought on reading this press release was, “This sure sounds like they’re whistling past the graveyard.” On further reflection, it seemed to me that there’s some price elasticity in the streaming market. I think music-lovers will pay a premium for a better experience.

Amazon Qobuz

Amazon Music HD isn’t yet available in Canada, where I live. I contacted Amazon’s Canadian PR agency to get information on the service, and also to see if I could get access to it for this report, noting that SoundStage! has a global audience. They were perversely unhelpful (I’m talking about you, Kristen!).

I have spent some time on Amazon Music Unlimited, which is available in my country, and I have to say I like Qobuz’s interface a lot better. (Tidal is another story -- I’ve never warmed to its interface or search function.) Qobuz’s apps offer features not available on Amazon Music Unlimited (editorial content, press awards, liner notes), making it easier for me to find the music I want to hear.

True, Amazon offers Alexa integration, but for music playback, I think voice control is a bit of a parlor trick. It’s fine for cueing up background music for a dinner party, but not for finding what you want to hear when you sit down for a good listen, and definitely not for discovering new music.

Qobuz

Admittedly, I’m an outlier -- my musical tastes are definitely not mainstream. Based on a quick tour, it looks as if Amazon Music’s apps are targeted to more generic tastes. But here’s the thing: all music lovers are outliers, especially audiophiles. Maybe the mass market wants aural wallpaper, but people who care about music have tastes that are mostly outside the mainstream. I think Qobuz gets this better than Amazon.

That said, the price difference between Qobuz and Amazon Music HD is substantial -- Prime members can get high-rez streaming for just over half of what Qobuz costs. Many audiophiles and music-lovers will find this hard to resist. I agree with Howard that Amazon’s entry puts real pressure on Qobuz.

Whither Tidal and MQA?

The price delta between Amazon and Tidal is smaller. And Tidal has some advantages over Amazon, notably its exclusive releases, concerts, and video content. The real pressure on Tidal comes from its use of the MQA format for high-rez audio. Like Qobuz (as well as the classical streaming services Idagio and Primephonic), Amazon is using the open FLAC format for lossless and high-rez streaming. That means users can get full resolution with just about any component that supports high-rez audio.

Tidal’s desktop and mobile apps do the first “unfold” of MQA content, as do Amarra’s and Audirvana’s music players for macOS and Windows, and Roon’s network music-delivery system. That means listeners can get up to 24/96 resolution even without MQA-capable DACs. But for full resolution on music above 24/96, and for enabling the playback filter that’s part of the MQA scheme, you need a DAC with MQA rendering capability, or full MQA hardware decoding.

Amazon Tidal

Moreover, Amazon Music Unlimited supports Chromecast, allowing wireless streaming to Chromecast-capable components via Wi-Fi. I assume Amazon Music HD also supports Chromecast, in which case users will be able to stream high-rez music at up to 24/192 resolution over their home networks. Tidal’s apps do not stream high-rez audio via Chromecast. If you attempt to stream an MQA-encoded album via Chromecast, the Tidal app sends the music in 16/44.1 FLAC format.

As I stated in that e-mail exchange with my fellow SoundStagers, “Tidal is shackled to MQA. Sonically, I have no issues with MQA, but it does restrict your choice of playback gear. I think MQA is dead in the water.” After further reflection, I think “dead in the water” is an overstatement. But MQA sure looks stalled right now -- other than a slow trickle of new components with MQA capability, it has zero momentum.

In a subsequent phone conversation, Doug Schneider speculated that Tidal could conceivably switch everything over to FLAC. I’m not sure about this -- there may be legal agreements that bind Tidal to MQA, though such agreements typically have expiry dates. If that ever happened, it would doom MQA. I don’t see Tidal bailing on MQA in the short or medium term, but who knows?

Whiter Roon?

Roon already integrates Tidal and Qobuz into its network music software. When I interviewed Rob Darling, director of strategy for Roon Labs, during the summer, he said lossless capability was a baseline requirement for integrating any streaming service into Roon. Amazon Music HD and UHD clearly qualify. “Roon will have to integrate Amazon Music HD soon,” Doug emphasized.

When I e-mailed Roon to ask about its plans for Amazon Music HD, the response was predictably vague. “We are always talking to all streaming services,” replied Dipin Sehdev, Roon’s vice president of marketing. “Because Roon integration requires more than just an API [application program interface], we don’t discuss the status of the relationship nor give any time frame.”

There’s another question. Roon needs ongoing cooperation from Amazon to integrate its HD streaming service. As Darling explained in our interview, Roon receives regular data dumps from Qobuz and Tidal so that it can keep all its metadata current. Will Amazon extend the same cooperation? Do Roon subscribers constitute a large enough market to command any attention from Amazon?

Amazon Roon metadata

I think they do. As outlined below, Amazon has clearly courted support from hardware makers for its new service. It would make sense for it to work with a software platform like Roon that has broad support with audiophiles and the manufacturers who cater to them.

There’s another unrelated question. If Amazon Music HD significantly expands the market for high-rez audio, will that influence Roon’s pricing strategy? If there are legions of people listening to high-rez music, but desirous of a richer software platform, would it make sense for Roon to start offering monthly subscriptions instead of yearly or lifetime? Gotta wonder.

How about the hardware?

In its announcement of Amazon Music HD and UHD, Amazon listed 29 “preferred brands” for the service. Over 20 of these use DTS’s Play-Fi whole-house music software. As I noted in my review of SVS’s Prime Wireless active loudspeakers, Play-Fi’s broad hardware support lets you assemble a whole-house music system with products from different brands.

But for high-rez playback, you have to enable Critical Listening Mode in the Play-Fi app; otherwise, high-rez music is downsampled to 16/48. Critical Listening Mode can be enabled in only one zone of a Play-Fi system.

More seriously, Play-Fi does not support gapless playback. This isn’t an issue for playlists, where there will almost always be gaps, or for albums with discrete tracks. But as I noted in my SVS Prime Wireless review, it is an issue for albums where one track segues seamlessly into another.

Amazon hardware

Amazon lists Sonos as one of the preferred brands for its HD and Ultra HD music services, but there’s an asterisk beside the brand name. “HD only,” the footnote cautions -- in other words, Sonos won’t do high-rez with Amazon. No surprise there. Sonos has never supported high-rez playback, and has generally been dismissive of the audible benefits of going beyond Red Book audio.

Moreover, Sonos’s history in networked music goes back a long way -- its first products launched in 2005. While its current products certainly have the internal horsepower to play high-rez music, many of its legacy products do not. And I doubt that the Sonos platform could request a music service to send a high-rez stream to one of its current products while transmitting a standard-resolution stream of the same music to a legacy player.

Amazon NAD

The day after Amazon’s announcement, Lenbrook International announced that all products employing the BluOS network-music platform now support Amazon Music HD and UHD. “This is impressive,” Doug commented upon reading the announcement.

I agree. In the short term, I think BluOS is the big winner on the hardware front -- not just Bluesound products, but NAD components like the Masters M10 streaming amplifier and third-party products like DALI’s Callisto 2 C active loudspeakers.

BluOS has supported high-rez playback right from the get-go. Users can stream audio at up to 24/192 resolution to multiple zones simultaneously, under control of a slick, stable app that runs on iOS and Android devices.

As high-rez audio gains more mainstream acceptance, this could be an opportunity for BluOS to eat some of Sonos’s lunch. Not the whole sandwich to be sure -- there are a lot of Sonos systems out there, and few of their owners will scrap their systems to get high-rez capability. But Amazon Music HD will add to the appeal of the BluOS platform, especially as it gathers support from non-Lenbrook brands.

Besides using specialized hardware, audiophiles can also stream from the Amazon Music HD app running on a PC or Mac that’s connected to a USB DAC.

Amazon Raconteurs

And of course, listeners can use the service on mobile devices. Until now, few handset manufacturers have put sound quality very high on their priority list. But the entry of a major player like Amazon into high-rez audio could change that quickly, especially if providers like Spotify and Apple follow suit.

Even if Amazon’s announcement doesn’t immediately generate widespread acceptance of high-rez music, it will certainly increase awareness of high-rez audio. That will surely make sound quality a more important part of the way people approach music playback. That’s a very good thing.

Gordon Brockhouse
Senior Editor, SoundStage!

Newest Videos

SoundStage! InSight - Rockport Technologies Lyra Loudspeaker (November 2019)
SoundStage! InSight - Sonus faber Olympica Nova at World of McIntosh Townhouse (October 2019)